Niyo: Pistons' global pursuit is grasp for better future

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Auburn Hills — The present-tense Pistons still have a ceiling that’s going to be difficult — maybe even impossible — to lift.

But if nothing else, Thursday night at least showed they’re thinking seriously about their future.

That’s one takeaway from a dizzying NBA Draft that saw more twists and turns and trades — so many trades — than any in recent memory.

“Whoa, how about it?” laughed Ed Stefanski, the Pistons’ senior advisor, as he took a break in the middle of the first round to talk about Detroit’s selection with the 15th overall pick.

And how about this? The Pistons were a bit stunned to find themselves with an option few figured they’d have Thursday, as 18-year-old Sekou Doumbouya, a raw 6-foot-9, 230-pound prospect from France’s top professional league, was there for the taking.

Sekou Doumbouya walks onstage after being drafted by the Detroit Pistons on Thursday.

“We didn’t see it coming,” Stefanski admitted. “I’m surprised he got to us.”

That the Pistons took him wasn't a huge surprise. But it was a statement, in a way. Stefanski refused to call the pick a "gamble," yet it's hardly the safest pick. Or the neediest one, which is a trap the Pistons easily could've fallen into, a la Luke Kennard or Stanley Johnson.

Doumbouya was widely viewed as a top-10 talent in this top-heavy draft, and seemed secure enough that he didn’t take any visits outside the top 12. That’s understandable, too, because you have to go back to 2013 to find the last time the draft’s first international choice actually fell outside the lottery. That pick: Giannis Antetokounmpo, who also went 15th overall and now is an MVP candidate in Milwaukee.

Doumbouya’s pre-draft comps weren’t that lofty, obviously. But he does remind some scouts of Pascal Siakam, a budding star and newly-crowned NBA champion the Pistons’ coach, Dwane Casey, knows quite well from his time in Toronto.

Stefanski traveled to Europe in February to watch the 18-year-old prospect play for his Limoges team in France’s Pro-A league. And he was joined by Casey and veteran player personnel director Gregg Polinsky for Doumbouya’s individual workout — “a big-time workout” as Stefanski described it — earlier this month in Dallas, where the Pistons’ brass also sat down for a private interview with him.

And as he stood in a conference room Thursday night, the Pistons’ de facto general manager rattled off a laundry list of reasons why the team was so excited he fell into their laps.

He’s an athletic 6-9 forward — with a 7-foot wingspan — joining a Pistons roster overloaded with 6-4 and 6-5 guards. He can put the ball on the floor and his shot shows some promise. But for now his strengths mostly lie in his ability to defend multiple positions and his comfort level playing in transition.

And his value? It’s in his upside, a word Stefanski admits is overused in the NBA but one that absolutely fits when you’re talking about the youngest player in his draft class. In fact, Doumbouya doesn’t turn 19 until December 23, which means he was only nine days away from being ineligible for this 2019 draft.

The Pistons’ other pick Thursday night fit the same profile, as they went for another European teenager in Lithuania’s Deividas Sirvydis, a 6-foot-8 shooter who just turned 19 and is a likely draft-and-stash pick, though the team can’t even talk about him until July 6.

That’s because that second-round selection (37th overall) was part of a flurry of moves made over the last 24 hours.

For Detroit, it started with Wednesday night’s trade, dealing Jon Leuer’s expiring contract to Milwaukee for Tony Snell and the Bucks’ first-round pick (30th overall). That one made sense in the short term, as the Pistons weren’t going to do much better than Snell shopping for a bigger wing in free agency, given their cap constraints. (And with that spot filled, they can now spend what little they’ve got on a backup point guard and possibly a backup center as well.)

But by the end of Thursday’s first round, that trade also had sprouted leaves. The Pistons dealt the 30th pick to Cleveland, who sent four future second-round picks — and $5 million in cash, per ESPN — to Detroit for the right to select Kevin Porter Jr., a talented player whose character red flags scared off many NBA teams. Two of those Cleveland picks then went to Dallas for the rights to Sirvydis -- an odd splurge, I'd argue -- and the Pistons later made another swap for the rights to Tennessee point guard Jordan Bone, an explosive athlete who figures to be a third guard playing primarily in the G League as a rookie.

Now then, do any of these moves actually move the needle in terms of the Pistons’ playoff potential next season? The rookies sure don’t, though Doumbouya should see some playing time. But short of trading up much higher into the lottery, I'm not sure that would've changed. And again, that didn't seem all that sensible.

"People wanted too much," Stefanski said, when asked about the possibility. "And we can’t afford to give away the future to move up. And I’m really happy we didn’t. We sat where we were and ... a lot of times the draft comes to you."

So if you're wondering what gives, remember this: The Pistons’ roster is what is right now — up against the cap, without many coveted assets — and that’s probably not going to change anytime soon. (See the price Utah paid this week for Mike Conley, if you’re still wondering why.)

So give them credit for recognizing that, I guess. The Pistons don't seem all that interested in doubling down on past mistakes. Thursday night, they were looking to the future, instead of mortgaging it.